European Football

France’s Euro 2020 Postmortem Part 2: The Manager Question

Is it time for Deschamps to go?

Didier Deschamps is a national hero. Never forget that.

After captaining and managing France to World Cup glory in 1998 and 2018, Deschamps will go down in history as one of the most beloved men in the history of French sport. Nothing will change that, and certainly this tournament will not. But Les Bleus‘ failure at Euro 2020 rests squarely and firmly upon his shoulders first and foremost, and there is absolutely no way for anyone to avoid the very difficult conversation that needs to happen (though many are trying very hard to pin the blame on others).

France’s defeat to Switzerland was probably the worst tactical performance from Deschamps as France manager, possibly even in his whole career prior to taking the France job. The three at the back system was clearly not well-rehearsed. The selection of Lenglet in the middle of the three instead of Zouma or Kounde not only left the back three not athletic enough to deal with Swiss attacks, but it planted France’s worst defender in the middle of the park. The wing backs (or “pistons” as I have now learned they are called in French) of Rabiot and Pavard were not athletic enough to do what they needed to do, they offered no width, and they were not strong enough defensively to help an exposed back three. Rabiot, while he has been competent at worst and fairly solid at best in midfield this tournament, ran himself ragged as a wingback in the first half and was unable to do anything in the second half. The only seemingly logical selection for these wingbacks, Kingsley Coman on the left and Moussa Sissoko on the right, seemingly eluded Deschamps in his set up meetings. Due to the wingbacks not being able to do much of anything, the midfield became crowded and unbalanced. Kanté was ineffective, while Pogba did not do enough defensively to support a back three that constantly looked like deer in the headlights. There was seemingly a massive disconnect between the front three and the rest of the team, and when the attackers got the ball, they had very little support and could not do anything by themselves. It was the worst half of football I have seen from a France team in a very long time, and it took only 33 minutes for Deschamps to revert from his 3-5-2 set up to a more traditional 4-3-3, the surefire sign of someone who knows that he messed up.

And to be completely fair, France looked pretty good at the beginning of the second half in this 4-3-3. They looked like they got a boot up their behind, moving with energy and intensity, creating moments of world-class wonder and magic that led to two goals from Benzema and a worldie from Paul Pogba. They were suddenly 3-1 up, maybe this was this year’s Argentina? Maybe this was the wake-up call Les Bleus needed?

You could sense the misplaced arrogance, though, and this might be Deschamps’ biggest failure of the match. Taking off Antoine Griezmann was the most damning in-game decision he made, something that reeked of assurance that France did not earn. It is what ultimately costed them, as they could not be shocked back to life going forward after Switzerland came back and leveled the match at 3-3. Reinforcing the defense could have come sooner, but it should have come from taking off an exhausted Rabiot or a useless Pavard rather than arguably France’s most important player. And instead of relying for so long on Rabiot playing as a makeshift left back, a position that he played alright in but was clearly not his strong suit, he could have brought on Léo Dubois, a player who is a natural fullback and who has played as a left back at times for FC Nantes in the past. Why bring Dubois at all if you just refuse to use him? Why not bring Ferland Mendy (if he was actually fit), who is equally able to play at left back and right back? Going into extra time, you could also criticize Deschamps for not using a more mobile forward like Wissam Ben Yedder as a substitute for the injured Benzema instead of the fairly ineffective Giroud. While I personally get the logic of keeping Lloris in the game, especially after he saved Ricardo Rodríguez’s penalty in the second half, I think there is at least a discussion to be had about why he stayed out there instead of bringing on Mike Maignan, who has a much better penalty-saving record historically compared to Lloris.

The Switzerland game was a comedy show of errors from Deschamps, but if we are truly being honest with ourselves, this is not the first time that we can raise genuine questions about Deschamps’ management of this team. People who point to Benzema’s inclusion being the issue often point to that moment as being when Deschamps began tinkering with the system, straying away from the 4-2-3-1 that France played in 2018 and trying to fix something that was not broken. This is quite simply not true, the tinkering started well before then. France experimented with a diamond midfield and a 4-3-3 on multiple occasions during qualifying. They dabbled in a 4-4-2 during qualifying and during the Nations League, and they even dragged out a 3-5-2 on multiple occasions. All of this tinkering happened well before a word was publicly or privately whispered about Benzema returning to the national team. And it needed to happen because France were struggling at times, especially during Euros qualifying and the first Nations League campaign. Those who were unhappy with Benzema’s inclusion and wanted Giroud to return to the fold, thinking that would suddenly make France the best team in the world, must have forgotten the times when France struggled going forward previously while Giroud was playing as the number nine. The one constant during this tournament and beforehand was Deschamps and his overall tactical system, and while winning the World Cup has shielded Deschamps from criticism, he does deserve some.

Throughout this tournament and in qualifying, France looked impotent, slow, turgid, languishing in attack due to how forced everything seemed. Deschamps stuck with his defensive game plan, but with the defense not being as strong as the one that played in Russia three years ago, the team struggled. It seemed like at times France was playing football with the handbrake on, everything looked so difficult at times. There was little in the way of movement or attacking patterns. With the utterly insane amount of attacking talent available to France, there is no reason why this should not be a terrifying attacking force of nature.

Yeah, you can say France wanted to play “tournament football”, and outside of the Spain teams from 2008-2012, the vast majority of successful international teams played very slow, defensive styles. Hell, Portugal won the last Euros without winning a knockout game in regular time. But given the results of this tournament, this conversation should be revisited. When you look at how Italy have played in this tournament, it is fair to wonder what stopped France from playing with that level of freedom, fluidity, and precision in attack. Italy won the Euros playing a free-flowing attacking style that made them incredibly fun to watch, while also maintaining that defensive solidity and organization that is required to win major tournaments. Why can France not play like this? What is stopping France from looking at this Italy team and doing their style better than them? There should not be anything stopping them, this France team is more than capable of playing this way, so why does Deschamps not want to? Or is he not able to get the team playing that way? These are all very genuine questions that deserve to be leveled at Deschamps right now, we can no longer pretend the World Cup shields him from criticism. France are no longer the plucky upstarts they were in 1996 and 1998, they are no longer the struggling underdog they were after 2006, they are a top team and deserve the expectations that are leveled on a top team.

Luckily for Deschamps, he has a year and a half before the World Cup. It is a time period that is long enough for him to figure things out, find a tactic that suits this team, and give a shot to the young uncapped stars that deserve their chance with the senior team while still being a short enough time to retain the focus and intensity that this group likely feels after that disappointment. There will be some form of inquiry into this failure by the French Football Federation, but I imagine that Deschamps will retain his position to prepare for the World Cup.

But should he? Should he remain France manager? Well, I really do not think so.

I have all of the respect in the world for Didier Deschamps, and nothing will change that. He left an accomplished club management career to take the France job at the most difficult time, and he righted the ship almost immediately. But if there is anything that we have learned in management, especially international management, over the last decade, it is that managers have shelf lives at their respective jobs, and leaving them in that position for too long can have negative effects. The perfect example of this is Joachim Löw and Germany. Löw is as accomplished of a manager as has existed in international football since the turn of the century, taking the Germany job in 2006 and guiding the team to a runners up finish at Euro 2008, third at the World Cup in 2010, and a semifinal in Euro 2012 before finally winning the World Cup in 2014. 2016 was probably the end of his shelf life, and their semifinal defeat to France in Marseille that year represented what was the true end of that great German generation, and it should have been the point where Löw stepped aside. Except he did not. He stayed on as Germany manager for the 2018 World Cup and for the Euros this year, and Germany historically disappointed in both competitions. He stayed beyond his shelf life, and you could tell that Germany had gotten rotten. He had taken Germany as far as he could carry them, and it was time for the next man to carry them further.

This is where I think we are at with Deschamps’ France. He has been manager since 2012, guiding the team to the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup, the Final of Euro 2016, and to victory in Russia in 2018. But this competition felt like the end of the line, the end of the cycle. With all due respect to him, it does appear that he has gotten everything that he can out of this team. While his mindset and tactics made France hard to beat and got them playing well enough to seriously contend in 2016 and win in 2018, the team has more room to grow and, unfortunately, Deschamps is not the one capable of taking them there.

Everyone’s biggest defense of Deschamps was his ability to maintain a strong team spirit. After the team mutiny in 2010, that became a quite important issue in the eyes of the French Football Federation. Despite the issues that existed even prior to 2018, and despite some fans being unhappy with the style holding back the attack, we felt that we had to accept those tactical flaws in order to maintain a team spirit necessary to win a tournament. But, as has been more than clearly explained by multiple different news outlets, there was not a strong team cohesion in this France camp. If Deschamps is not actually as good as we thought at maintaining this team spirit in a team that is mostly still made up of the 2018 team, then why are we accepting his tactical faults? Why should we accept these tactical shortcomings, even after they were exposed against Switzerland? As I said before, France are no longer plucky upstarts or underdogs, they are expected to win and need to play that way. The one difference between this situation and the Germany situation, however, is that the ideal replacement for France is currently out there unemployed, while there was no ideal replacement for Löw in 2016.

It has basically become one of the worst-kept secrets in football that Zinedine Zidane wants to be the France National Team manager, and now that the ex-Real Madrid boss is unemployed and sitting at home, it sort of seems like the ideal time to make the move. Is Zidane a risk-free appointment? Of course not, there is no risk-free appointment, and even keeping Deschamps is not risk-free. But Zidane is a new mind to come into this team, one that is more expansive and can hopefully get more out of the attacking talent available in this team than Deschamps was able to. He also brings a winning track record while also showing he has the ability to form teams into cohesive units on and off the pitch, fitting France’s obsession with maintaining the spirit of the dressing room.

The potential of Zidane coaching the young midfielders in this France selection pool, even outside of the Pogba’s and Kanté’s that are currently in the team, is quite an exciting prospect. While the team may not be as defensively solid as Deschamps was able to get them to be in 2018, I think Zidane has the ability to get the team attacking and playing as a more flowing, collective unit than Deschamps was able to. It is clear that Zidane is the next logical step, and while I could understand keeping Deschamps through the World Cup next year, I do not think it would be responsible to extend him beyond then. Ideally, I would not even extend him beyond now. Give the next year and a half to Zidane and see what he can do, see what happens in Qatar next year, and go from there. It is not an ideal hand off, but there really never was going to be an ideal time to make this hand off.

Ultimately, despite the disappointment that I still feel, I am not too worried simply because there is still so much talent available. This team is very talented, and the pool of players for France to select from grows deeper and more plentiful in talent by the year. It is the most talented pool of players that France have had available to them since the 1998 generation broke through, and it has the potential to end up forming among the best national teams in the history of football if managed correctly. Regardless of what happens in the grand scheme of things, France will likely be among the main contenders for the next four or five major tournaments at least. They seem to be here for the long run, and it is a matter of how much more they will win.

This point, while being a reason to not be concerned for France fans, sort of underlies the urgency of direction that still exists. It sounds very greedy to say, but this is a once-in-a-potentially-lifetime opportunity here. There is an absurd amount of talent available, enough to form what could be the brightest golden generation in all of French sport and form maybe the best national team generation in the history of football. It could be enough to catapult France into the top tier of historic footballing powers in the world. And if we get to the end of this run and look back at just a Euros final and one World Cup, it would feel very disappointing. France can no longer have the underdog mentality, the “happy to have my moment in the sun” mentality that it feels like they have had since 2014. France are no longer fighting to get to the top; they are already there, and they now need to change their mentality to one that fights to stay at the top rather than one that is just happy to get there. Deschamps is the one that got France to the top, but he is not the one that will keep them there. That is ok, and that does not take away anything that Deschamps has done, nor does it make him any less of a national hero. But we need to recognize when we have reached the end of a cycle, and it feels like we have.

The team will be fine. I have little fears about any of the issues being exposed in this tournament being so systemic and so urgent that they risk collapsing the floor underneath this team. But it is time to start thinking about direction, where France are currently going versus where they could be going. That is the ultimate lesson from this competition. There is clearly another gear or two that this team can reach, and now the national team and federation need to think about how they can get there.

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